As I sit here in a hip Los Angeles coffee shop across from the seemingly never-ending whooshes and rumbles of LA traffic on a busy boulevard just outside the door, I wonder if $4 is a reasonable price for the latte now sitting in front of me. It does have one of those latte art fern-shaped things on it. Or, at least it looks like a fern to me.
While not a tiny amount of money, it doesn't seem totally unreasonable. (And trust me: $4 for a latte is a respectable price in Los Angeles.) After all, I am availing myself the use of said business's counter, its rather lovely interior inspired by the owner's Taiwanese heritage (well, supposedly), a nice ceramic cup for my beverage, and the generally relaxed atmosphere the place provides. The music, a soft electronic sort of... thing - not too dissimilar to my untrained ears from the exquisite soundtrack of the cult indie game Machinarium - is played at an appropriate volume. All things considered, $4 isn't so bad for the drink and the hour I'll sit here hashing out emails and responding to comments. At least, that's what I'd normally be doing. Instead, I'm writing.
I look at the Galaxy S6 edge+ sitting on the marble counter in front of me, glistening so brightly it borders upon legitimate Gaudiness (as only Samsung's now-trademark Gold Platinum finish can). I pick it up. I do not feel as though I am holding an $800+ object - I feel like I'm holding a slippery, warm, glass brick, not particularly dissimilar from other slippery, warm, glass bricks I have held in the past. I place it back down, carefully, as one does with such an expensive thing. I consider just how bright the ambient sunlight would need to be before staring into the shining Gold Platinum metallic finish would actually damage my retinas.
Really, it does get pretty bright on the shiny bits.
This slippery glass brick is, of course, brand-new. People have only yet started to receive them, pulling them from their soft-touch cardboard packaging, examining them from edge to edge like well-practiced jewelers before carefully and surgically peeling away the logo and text-emblazoned plastic protective film, revealing the almost impossibly clean veneer of a factory-fresh smartphone. There is a certain sadness in knowing your phone will never, ever be this clean again, no matter how large your collection of microfiber wipes and various anti-bacterial goops.
"This," the proud new brick-owner thinks, "is what $800 [or more] buys you." When this initial sense of wonder passes, as it always does, a $20 plastic case ordered on Amazon a week ago in gleeful anticipation is unceremoniously snapped onto the glass brick to protect the owner's newest beloved possession (because leaving it unprotected is for "idiots"). Never really considered again is the sleek, purposeful, and thin structure all that amazing technology is precisely packed into, like some prestigious tin of fine silicon caviar. Like covering a Ferrari in black vinyl followed by a liberal coating of industrial-strength pickup truck bed-liner, it seems at once deeply practical and strangely sacrilegious.
Fast-forward 2 months. That phone falls down a flight of stairs at the end of a long night out, and despite the valiant efforts of that $20 branded plastic and silicone tomb to absorb each brutal impact, the screen develops a spidering crack along the edge of the glass after landing at exactly the wrong angle, as phones do. Such an incident is guaranteed to ruin the evening of all but the most financially fortunate among us. But more importantly, it renders the phone as ugly and socially stigmatic as a car that was clearly involved in a serious accident quite some time ago and has yet to be repaired because the owner either lacks the funds or, as we "smart consumers" quietly think to ourselves, because that person isn't careful and considerate with their possessions. No one likes to be "the cracked screen guy," and every time that fractured phone leaves your pocket, there is a brief moment of decidedly tactile dread, fleeting as it may be: "What the hell did I do to deserve this?"
Perhaps, if you are the particularly careful type, you have phone insurance. Oh, for joy: a [probable] mail-in process. And a deductible. Maybe a loaner device for good measure, a phone you'll use just long enough to get set up to your satisfaction before it's time to send it back. And suddenly your $800 phone and $20 case have turned into an $800 refurbished phone and a $20 case and two months of $8 insurance premiums (that you will continue paying, because you're responsible) and a $200 deductible and probably a cut finger because what were you supposed to do, stop using your phone? And if you don't have insurance? Time for a repair, with no guarantee that it'll be done right or even that a repair is possible without potentially damaging other parts of the phone. And that repair will be far from cheap if it's something like one of Samsung's ultra-trick curved QHD Super AMOLED panels.
The tiny tolerances and high precision necessary to make the pricey Galaxy S6 Edge+ result in a phone that almost looks fake at some angles - it is eerily perfect.
But maybe it never breaks. You keep it two years, locked in that rubber and polycarbonate sarcophagus. What is it worth now, even in pristine condition?* $200? Maybe $250 on an especially good day, for an especially desirable phone? It's used. (Don't forget to factor in cost of sale, time, and haggling - eBay isn't free, and Craigslist and Swappa buyers will want to negotiate.) Nobody really wants a phone that's been used for 2 years, or that is two years old to start with, and it's pretty unlikely that phone is in pristine condition anyway. Even if it was, that's a depreciation of 60-70%+ on a not-exactly-cheap possession. And you'd be out the cost of the case and insurance for all intents and purposes. What's a $200-300 phone worth in two years? Even a $400 one? I mean, to be blunt, who cares? You're still all but guaranteed to be at a significant net advantage compared to the more expensive phone. You can recycle the cheap, old phone or get a modest trade-in deal somewhere, and not feel like you're throwing money away.
(*In the interest of science... or whatever, I looked up used Galaxy Note 3s on the web, a phone with an MSRP of around $700 here in the US when new. The going rate is $200-225 for excellent conditioned used or refurbished. That's a $475-500 hit to take in 2 years - if you're careful with it.)
So take a step back. What if you had bought a $300 phone instead of that $650 one? Or even a $200 one? How much would you miss that more expensive "experience"? How much more financially able would you be to deal with a loss if you opted for the cheaper device? Would you even want, let alone need a case or phone insurance?
I believe it is time to take a stand against the expensive smartphone as anything but a luxury in most senses. And by "take a stand," I mean let it be known that if we are to pay such high prices for phones, that those prices should more accurately reflect value and performance - not mere vanity and buzzwords. We've all probably wasted too much time and too much money on at least one electronic gadget in our lives for the sake of being an early adopter or out of a sheer desire for a novel toy. And sometimes, that experience can be a legitimate joy, something new and exciting. But smartphones have stopped being novelties - they are rapidly becoming commodities. The products are so alike even at opposite ends of the price spectrum that consumers can't not notice this phenomenon much longer.
For a mere $200, you can have an ASUS ZenFone 2. For not much more than that, there is the the new 16GB Moto G. Or the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3. There is Huawei's Ascend P8 Lite, or HTC's Desire 626. The 2014 Moto X isn't a bad deal, either.
ASUS's ZenFone 2 is just one of the many growing number of inexpensive, powerful, capable smartphones that would make flagship phones of two years ago feel slow.
These phones share a common attribute aside from their affordability: they're all perfectly usable. They are not needlessly complex, they do not fall apart after a month, and they even receive software support from their various manufacturers and have normal 1-year warranties (or longer). All run at least Android 5.0. Are they all amazing, cutting-edge, next-generation masturbatory mini-monuments to the relentless onslaught of advancing technology? No, of course not. But unlike phones of this price three or four years ago, they are actually good enough to live with on a day-to-day basis that they will not become the most-hated plastic object in your life within a few short weeks' time.
It really did use to be such that buying a "cheap" smartphone meant you would invariably be subjected to the "cheap" smartphone experience. A very limited warranty, non-existent support, substandard engineering. Internal components more fit for a nice flip-phone or an especially powerful graphing calculator. A screen that, on a sunny day, could be described most generously as capable of displaying an appreciable range of the visible light spectrum. Cameras best benchmarked against long-forgotten point-and-shoots banished to the technological purgatories that are our collective garages and closets, languishing in a cardboard box beside a deceased Tamagotchi and an old issue of Nintendo Power. Battery life and charge times not terribly dissimilar from the RadioShack R/C cars that, for me, remain a consumerist icon of 1990s suburban childhood.
Cheap smartphones were, in a word, awful. And this served to benefit companies like Apple, Samsung, Motorola, and HTC. The notion of a $600+ phone being "worth it" wasn't farfetched, given that the more affordable options were quite so embarrassingly bad. It was not beyond the realm of possibility for a $200 smartphone to have, say, a proprietary charging interface - something we would viciously balk at in 2015. The iPhone 3GS, the Galaxy S II, the HTC Desire HD, the Nexus S - these were products designed to avoid the many pitfalls of cheap smartphone ownership at the time. The software received a modicum of support, the cameras were passable, the displays readable, and the battery life at least not necessarily requiring a charge-up by lunch each day if you dared use them for more than simple SMS messaging. They could even play rich 2D and 3D games! Oh, the possibilities.
But as expensive smartphones marched on with their bespoke designs and so-new-you-haven't-even-heard-of-it components in order to advance ahead reliably with each and every timely annual or semi-annual release, something interesting began to happen to their cheaper brethren: they got better. And they got better much more quickly, comparatively, than the premium phones which dominated headlines. In part, that was likely because they skipped all the various false starts and stumbles the bleeding edge of the industry encountered. You know: WiMax, Tegra 2, Tegra 3... Tegra 4, 3D screens (oh god remember?), dual screens, 3D cameras, and the endless list of long-dead software features, services, and platforms major smartphone companies spend so much money developing. Instead, they reaped the benefits of the basic underlying technological advancements that occurred alongside frivolities like the Kyocera Echo and the Samsung Continuum - more efficient, higher-resolution displays, better camera sensors, denser batteries, standardized and tightly integrated chipsets, and the continual refinement and expanded feature sets of the Android operating system.
The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 caught many people - Alcatel competitors included - by surprise this year with its premium design and feature-set at an aggressive $250 street price.
Believe it or not, Google was among the very first companies to spot this emerging trend. The Nexus 4, released in 2012, retailed for a scant $300. At the time, it was unheard of (at least in America) for a phone with the sort of power and capability the Nexus 4 had to be priced so affordably. Rumors of Google and LG subsidies and of "taking a loss to build market share" were whispered across social media and comments sections like schoolyard gossip, and yet a year later, Google followed up with the nearly-as-cheap Nexus 5, at $350.
Neither device was a roaring success in the mainstream market, but these were the Samsung and Apple heydays - Google put no real effort into marketing the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 off the web, and the seemingly bottomless advertising coffers of Seoul and Cupertino's tech powerhouses trampled Google's disruptive efforts with all the drama of a Bentley rolling over a Matchbox car. The launches of both devices were also far from perfect - shipping delays and online storefront issues plagued the Nexus 4 in particular, and the Nexus 5 was in short supply for months after launch.
What Google did, though, was prove that a smartphone could be both (relatively) affordable and (relatively) good. But it would take a couple years after the Nexus 4 before Google's idea really began to manifest in the Western market in a bigger way.
There were rumblings, however; signs of things to come. It isn't exactly surprising in hindsight that Motorola, wholly owned by Google at the time, was among the first smartphone makers to really 'dive into the cheap end' and advertise a truly affordable good smartphone. In late 2013, the first Moto G launched. It was originally intended for developing markets, but Google and Motorola quickly realized the phone had strong potential in wealthier countries as a value-focused, no-frills product, launching a more expensive LTE version on the heels of the original's success. Now, two generations later, the Moto G is easily the world's most recognized and critically-acclaimed affordable smartphone (for what fame such a title brings).
The Moto G and subsequent phones like it were made possible by an economic process known as commoditization. As smartphones have become ludicrously common ludicrously quickly, competition to provide the best device at the best price has skyrocketed. Component suppliers like Qualcomm, MediaTek, and Intel have streamlined and simplified their SKUs to provide "ready to build" reference designs to customers that dramatically lower the cost of device development. And as the margins for these components are squeezed ever-tighter by increasing competition and saturation, consumers are winning with nearly every product announcement as phone MSRPs hone in ever-closer on an "optimal" balance of price, performance, and reliability.
The very best smartphones of 2013 can downright pale in comparison to modern budget phones, and that is no tech journalist exaggeration. Modern "budget" chipsets easily match or best those of high-end phones 2+ years ago in many respects - if not on raw speed, then at least in terms of native feature support. 1-3GB of RAM, LTE, 1080p video, respectable 3D performance - none of these are out of the question for a sub-$300 device. Storage, too, has become both cheaper and faster. Camera sensors have evolved dramatically in terms of baseline quality and resolution on both sides of the phone, and prices on older, reliable sensors have dropped. LTE support is essentially omnipresent on smartphones released here in America. And large batteries are no longer a luxury reserved for expensive phablets (nor are modern phablets themselves necessarily expensive).
ASUS has long marketed heavily on price, but the ZenFone 2 garnered unusual levels of attention.
The $250 smartphone of today is often just as good as, if not better than, the flagship phone of 2 years ago. It has wide LTE band support. It has a high-resolution camera that takes 1080p video without completely obliterating its battery. The screen may even be better - the newest "budget" 720p and 1080p LCD panels are absolutely gorgeous when tuned properly. Battery life is certainly no worse (and is typically better), and support for previously "advanced" technologies like 5GHz Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, mobile hotspot functionality, and NFC are essentially givens. Luxuries like fast charging, ample storage, high-res front-facing cameras, and refined industrial design are quickly trickling down into the sub-$300 market, too, even if they are not yet universal.
This has left the expensive phones of the world in a precarious position: advance quickly and advertise relentlessly or perish. And if market share is to be believed, only Samsung and Apple are managing to keep the $600-1000 phone truly alive economically in the face of the rising budget alternatives. Most of that is likely attributable to their unrivaled capacity for global advertising and retail presence, advantages that can only take you so far in the face of rivals making a rather compelling argument on the dollars-to-feature ratio. Even a huge smartphone brand like LG barely makes any money on its phones, and even then, most of the profits come from the mid-range, not the high-end products. And this leads me to believe that, while far from dead, the "flagship" phone is becoming increasingly marginalized and that vigorous development of such devices is becoming financially inviable for all but the world's very largest, richest manufacturers.
Samsung's original Note Edge was the first attempt to mass-market its curved "edge" Super AMOLED panel as a premium feature.
There is no doubt in my mind, for example - not for a fraction of a second - that an $800 Galaxy S6 edge+ is not twice as good as a $400 Moto X Style, and I don't even have to use the latter device to make that statement confidently. What's scarier yet for a company like Samsung, though, is that even a $250 device like Alcatel's OneTouch Idol 3 offers probably 90% of the functionality of the $800 Samsung at less than 30% of the MSRP. This simply wasn't true three or four years ago. Throwing in your hat with a $250 phone in 2011 was asking for trouble potentially many times greater than any issues you'd encounter with a "true" flagship phone. That $250 smartphone could be functionally obsolete in a matter of six months if it missed out on a major Android version update.
Today, a $180 Moto G purchased in 2013 runs the same version of Android as that $800 Galaxy S6 edge+ that was released a week ago. It can run basically the same apps (barring some 3D games). And if you've decided it's time to put your faithful plastic slab out to pasture? $180-220 gets you a modernized, LTE-ready, waterproof replacement in any one of hundreds of possible color combinations, delivered to your door without any arbitrary network locks or contractual restrictions. While budget phone "enthusiasts" may often come off as glib with their remarks of "my $200 phone is just as good as your $800 one," the fact is that those people are more right (or perhaps more accurately, less wrong) than ever before.
And there is no reason to believe this trend is slowing down. In fact, it is clearly speeding up: America, long a bastion of high-MSRP phones (dating back to the feature-phone years) protected by carrier subsidies and Apple's home-market domination, is undergoing what I would dub the beginnings of a highly pragmatic shift. As operators phase out contracts and their related device subsidies (and more people move to prepaid providers), consumers are starting to take notice just what a smartphone is costing them. Even broken up over 12, 24, or 30 months with no interest, it's easy to see the financial difference between $200 and $650 or $800 or more - and I am confident consumers will quickly start to understand that a price difference means far less of a qualitative difference than they'd previously come to expect.
Better yet, those consumers who do opt for a cheaper device are being met with an experience that many would deem perfectly satisfactory - satisfactory enough that the notion of returning to an expensive phone is almost unthinkable. Do we honestly believe the average person needs to spend $650 on a smartphone to be happy with it? Of course not. But in 2010, that statement wasn't quite so absurd - and that's how far we've come in this past five years. In a way, that's very easy to believe. In another, it's a little incredible.
I, for one, am pleased. As the "connected" world materializes around us with its various wireless technologies and "smart products," there is more pressure than even as a consumer to de-wire, de-analog, and de-manual our lives. The many amazing products we're seeing range from home security, fitness, and entertainment to the cars we drive, and some products that even exist solely as a second-screen augmentation of the smartphone itself. Do I want an $800 smartphone, or do I want a $300-400 smartphone, a $200 smartwatch, a $100 set of smart earbuds, and a $100 smart TV box, and maybe some money left over? I'll go with package "B."
Of course, such financial considerations are not universal, and this example is plainly simplistic. And for those willing to spend, I have little doubt there will always be a smartphone (or whatever the smartphone becomes in the years and decades ahead) that will cater to the high-MSRP market. Apple and Samsung have made profitable businesses of it, and they won't let that slip out of their grasp any time soon. I am not claiming $800 (or more) phones are going away in the next year or two - I think they're definitely going to be around a while yet.
But I really and truly believe we are in the twilight years of the popular idea that a good, reliable smartphone must also be a relatively expensive one. As the market saturates, manufacturers will compete, and consumers will only become more savvy as to what makes one phone different from another. There will always be marketing, fanboys, and aesthetics or "status symbol" issues to contend with, but the both slightly sad and also holistically good truth is that smartphones are, as a market, becoming more like the Toyota Camry and less like the Tesla Model S. Everyone will soon all but need a smartphone, and there will be relentless competition at the entry to mid-level of the market. That is where the practical innovation will start to happen more and more. Certainly, the latest and greatest devices will stay up higher on the MSRP ladder, and they will make the boldest and most exciting advancements (or at least claim to), but like exotic or luxurious cars, even many of those people who can afford one will likely begin to scoff at the value of such an indulgence.
I will say it is an interesting time to be alive when a reasonably good magic wireless pocket-computer can be had for the cost of a noisy fashion accessory.